Japanese voters shun both LDP and opposition in local poll


TOKYO Japanese ruling coalition powerbrokers were set on Monday to step up efforts to replace unpopular Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, after a stark warning that many voters are fed up with parties of all persuasions.

In a poll widely seen as a bellwether for a July election for parliament’s Upper House, voters in Chiba Prefecture east of Tokyo on Sunday elected as governor independent Akiko Domoto, a former Upper House lawmaker backed by grass-roots civic groups.

Domoto defeated four other candidates, including one backed by Mori’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and another supported by the main opposition Democratic Party.

“My victory in this grass-roots-style election is significant, not just for Chiba,” said Domoto, a former journalist. “I felt strongly that there was a demand for change from the people of the prefecture.”

Lawmakers in the LDP led ruling coalition are keen to ditch Mori — one of the nation’s most unpopular premiers ever — ahead of the July Upper House poll. The prime minister has already promised to bring forward from September an LDP election to replace him as party president and hence premier.

The passage on Monday of an 82.65 trillion yen (US$670.6 billion) budget for the fiscal year from April 1 and the completion of his planned diplomatic schedule following Sunday’s summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Siberian city of Irkutsk mean Mori has little excuse to linger beyond the enactment of budget-related bills expected early next month.

“The focus is now on the LDP presidential election… We will keep a close eye on it,” said Takenori Kanzaki, head of the New Komeito Party, the LDP’s main partner in the three-way coalition.

But while April 20 has been tipped as a possible date for the party poll, no firm date has been set.

Nor have any candidates thrown their hats in the ring for a race whose victor may have to step down in short order if the ruling bloc fares badly in the Upper House election.

The persistent political confusion comes as the ruling coalition seeks to fulfill emerging, though still guarded, hopes that it is finally prepared to deal with Japan’s economic woes, including the bad loans weighing down its banking system.

“I want them to pull (the steps) together in early April,” Mori told reporters, referring to an emergency government-ruling parties emergency economic task force set up earlier this month.

Voters in the suburban prefecture of Chiba, however, gave the cold shoulder to established parties on both sides of the aisle, choosing instead to back Domoto, a former journalist who entered the race late after strong urging from local civic groups.

But the blow may have been greatest for the Democrats, who hoped to benefit from voter antipathy towards the LDP after the gaffes and scandals which slashed support for Mori and his party.

“The results clearly showed the popular mistrust of the established political parties,” said political science professor Muneyuki Shindo of Rikkyo University in Tokyo. “The criticism of the LDP is only natural, but there was also criticism of the Democrats, so the damage to them is great.”

Domoto is the third independent to be elected governor in recent months, after similar victories in the conservative strongholds of Tochigi and Nagano prefectures late last year.

“Since the Chiba gubernatorial election was a major defeat not only to the governing party but also to the major opposition Democratic Party as well, the political landscape from now up until next summer is fairly fluid, very difficult to predict,” said Tokyo University Professor Takashi Inoguchi.

With the budget out of the way and just a few other related pieces of legislation to be tidied up, LDP powerbrokers were expected to intensify maneuvering to find a successor to Mori.

But weekend hints by Mori’s chief lieutenant, the reformist former Health Minister Junichiro Koizumi, that he might not run and firm refusals by his potential rival, LDP elder Hiromu Nonaka, are fogging forecasts of who will take over.

The LDP chief would normally be assured the premiership given the party’s dominance of the three-way ruling camp, though precedents exist for giving the post to a coalition partner.